North Korea secretly provided Libya with nearly two tonnes of uranium in early 2001, The New York Times has reported, citing unnamed U.S. officials and European diplomats.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said there was 1.7 metric tons of uranium hexafluoride, a standard raw material for enrichment through feeding centrifuges, but experts told the newspaper’s Saturday edition the uranium was far short of the potency needed to make a nuclear weapon.
A large quantity of uranium hexafluoride was turned over to the United States by the Libyans earlier this year as part of leader Muammar Gaddafi’s agreement to give up his nuclear program. At the time, the United States identified Pakistan as the likely source.
However, the IAEA told The Times it found evidence that the uranium came from North Korea. The agency based its conclusion on interviews of members of the secret nuclear supplier network set up by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the former head of Pakistan’s main nuclear laboratory.
American officials say the discovery of the North Korean connection is an intelligence success that resulted indirectly from Libya’s decision to dismantle its nuclear program, and the ensuing drive to break up Khan’s network, according to the newspaper’s web site.
The uranium shipped to Libya could not be used as nuclear fuel unless it was enriched in centrifuges, which the Libyans were constructing as part of a $100 million program to purchase equipment from the Khan network, The Times reported.
The paper said the classified evidence had touched off a race among the world’s intelligence services to explore whether North Korea has made similar clandestine sales to other nations or perhaps even to terror groups seeking atomic weapons.
Iran has bought centrifuges from the Khan network, investigators believe, but it has denied it is seeking a nuclear weapon.
Bush administration officials warned last year that North Korea could make good on its threats to provide nuclear materials or weapons. However, until recently U.S. officials said they had no evidence that the country was dealing in anything beyond missiles and missile technology.